Gossip is blessed with possibly the strongest, most easily identified and soulful female singer in current rock music. Beth Ditto’s tremulous voice ranges in tone from raging shouts to melodic cooing, and she oozes confidence, through her lyrics and her performance. It seems as if she should belong to some amazing, kick-ass band that rules over the kingdom of rock with a benevolent hand, but Gossip does not truly have a Page to her Plant. Nothing musically on Music for Men is likely to propel the band out of its middling musical stature into true rock-stardom.
As strong as their singer is, a band is a band, and at the hand of legendary producer Rick Rubin, the rest of the group fades too easily into the background on Music for Men. Drums and guitar knock out tidy beats against neat little riffs and rhythmic chords that may have just as well been programmed. Gossip is continually referred to as punk in origin, but little of the group’s punk roots are evident on the album. The careful production, cowbell, handclaps, and synths bring sounds of disco to the forefront, which may enable a wider commercial appeal (this is, after all, the band’s first album for Columbia), but the sound loses that raw edge that made preceding albums so appealing. We’re left with little within the music to distinguish the Gossip from the army of dance-rock bands already out there. How cliche: Indie band goes mainstream and loses touch with its original sound, fades into the masses, wa-wa, so sad.
Fortunately, Gossip refuses to be as predictable as all that, and manages to maintain an independent voice, even if not within its sound. It is significant that the album is titled Music for Men; Gossip has a huge following within the LGBT community. The lyrics blatantly refer to the lives and issues of sexual minorities, free of the innuendo and double-speak that many performers use to engage these topics. On “Pop Goes the World,” Ditto sings a call to activism: “For once/ We’ll do what come naturally/ We’ll approach it casually/ With no apology/ For once/ We will have the final say/ Goodbye to yesterday/ ‘Cause we know we’re hear to stay.” It’s not all political, however; “Men in Love” is a party song about the nightlife of “Men in love/ with each other.” Although the band’s gender politics are pretty light, they are refreshing — possibly because they are obvious but not too heavy-handed or domineering.
Head to head, Music for Men does not match up to the fiery, transportive intensity of Standing in the Way of Control; nothing on Music for Men comes near to touching the energy of Gossip’s previous album’s title track or the simple grace of “Coal to Diamonds.” Music for Men is a relatively safe album for Gossip’s first major release. That may serve to build Gossip’s fan base, but who really gives a shit if the band’s not serving up its A game?